Pierre Spenle, 40, was trying to leave the trailer after the circus Monday when a security bar he was holding on to gave way, Coroner Jon Brandenberger said. More than one of the three Asian elephants — each weighing more than 7,000 pounds — then stomped on him, the coroner said.
"Once he's on the floor, animal trainers will tell you, he's no longer the trainer. He's another object as if he were a basketball or whatever thrown in among the elephants' feet," Brandenberger said.
The coroner said the elephants likely began stepping on him out of curiosity, not out of aggressiveness. He said it is natural for elephants to kick and stomp on anything they cannot see.
The accident happened in the parking lot as the circus was packing up after performing in the Fort Wayne Mizpah Shrine temple's annual circus.
According to the Fort Wayne News Sentinel, this was the second time in a decade a worker with the Tarzan Zerbini Circus, which is based in Webb City, Mo., was involved in an accident with an elephant while loading animals and equipment after — a performance there.
The News Sentinel detailed that the accident — occurred about 2:20 p.m. as circus employees loaded elephants in preparation for departure. The sheriff's department investigated the incident because Allen County government owns the Memorial Coliseum where the circus performances were held.
Larry Solheim, general manager of the circus, said Tuesday that the trainer, from Plantersville, Texas, had been working with the elephants for 18 years.
Solheim said investigators were seeking advice from veterinarians and animal behavior experts, but that they did not believe it was an act of aggression.
"They are so mammoth, these animals, that even when they play, if you don't know how to play with them, you could get hurt," he said.
He said the animals were being taken to an undisclosed location where they will be monitored. Whether they will return to the circus depends on an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Indiana Department of Labor, Solheim said.
No one witnessed the fatal stomping because two other animal handlers who had helped load the elephants into the trailer had left him alone to latch one last gate and secure the animals, officials said.
Elephants are the largest of all land animals, and depending on the gender and species they could reach 13 feet in height and weigh up to 6.5 tons, according to the Humane Society of the United States' Web site.
Captive elephants from 1990 to 2003 killed 65 people and injured 130, according to Circuses.com which is run by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.